Julian Clover reviews a year of new formats, new technologies and familiar battles
US pollsters call them the dog whistles, the topics that appeal most to their voters, and bring them out on Election Day. In the past year the dogs have been sounding to tunes sounded by on demand, HD and TV over the internet.
This does not rule out the role played by the now extra mature digital terrestrial television. While Whitehaven finally began UK analogue switch off, Sweden and Finland both completed the process, joining the Netherlands and Luxembourg being all digital nations, at least as far as terrestrial was concerned. It has now been five years since Freeview replaced the failed ITV Digital with its free-to-view package. But pay-TV over the terrestrial platform remains an option; in some countries it has remained an integral part of the proposition, while in many others pay offers are beginning to appear alongside the free service. This has led to further debate, particularly in the UK, where Sky’s proposed Picnic is seeking to replace its existing three DTT channels with a premium package that would also combine telephony and broadband.
As ever Sky has been on the receiving end of a failed beating from its competitors, but it remains ahead of the game with competitive packaging and technology advances, which UK cable still finds troublesome, particularly without Sky’s basic channels. On the continent UPC has begun to drive its digital packages into subscriber homes, a trend that has spread to other markets, boosted by on demand offers and to a lesser extent high definition.
On demand has become the key selling point for advanced cable systems, producing a technology that for the time being will keep the DTH predators at bay, and has beaten the IPTV operators at their own game. Cable has always been capable of these advances; it’s just that it has often lacked the will. The curiosity has been that it is the private equity companies, so often associated with taking out value, which have been largely responsible for this upsurge in activity.
The question for the private equity firms now is how long they will stay around for. The markets that have prevented a series of high profile IPOs may keep them in place for a while longer, in between swapping assets among themselves.
HD has now evolved into Full HD, with the minor complication that no broadcaster appears to be planning 1080p transmissions any day soon, hardly surprising, as the existing technology has barely got off the ground. Increasingly multichannel services, the Discoverys and Nat Geos, can be found in all the major markets and the public broadcasters in the UK, France Sweden and others are ready to help drive the format forward in the next 12 months.
Broadband, for so long an important part in cable’s armoury, is becoming increasingly commoditised. But the white charger of DOCSIS 3 is on the horizon, riding to the rescue with speeds of 100 Mbps, capable of giving the edge over telco ADSL and just in time to support the growing number of TV over the internet ventures. Even if you take the edge off the undoubted hype surrounding Bebo, My Space, Hula and Joost, there remains a clear demand for more capacity. The real challenge will come when Granny realises her 1 Mbps connection is not enough to support the live streaming of daytime TV. It will happen.
Mobile TV remains the runt of the litter; would be subscribers that agreed to pay €10 a month having seemingly gone into hiding. I have difficulty getting a phone signal on the hour-long journey between Cambridge and Kings Cross, making TV more challenging still. But this technology is still in its infancy. The question may be how we receive entertainment on the go, rather than if, given the number of iPods and such devices that now support video.